Part IV – Chapter24

Time, place and posture.

The following chapters are not intended as a step-by-step guide to meditation, but rather to help the reader deal with some of the practical issues that arise in the course of meditation. But first a few words on getting started….

Whenshould one meditate? In principle, anytime – but in practice you will get best results if you select the time when your environment allows you maximum isolation and peace. I personally find the middle of the night an extremely precious time for meditation: there are almost no sights or sounds to disturb one at that time, and one can really get deep. Of course, prepare the ground as necessary; e.g. turn off your fridge if you can hear it.

But there is no hard and fast rule: some of my most satisfying meditation sessions have been in the morning or the evening. In the morning, one is well rested and thoughts have not yet multiplied; but one may be impatient with meditation, knowing that one has many things to do in the day ahead. In the evening, one may be tired and full of thoughts; but sometimes the fact that one’s day is over allows one to develop intense meditation.

You should try different meditation times, and find out the time of day or night that suits you best. This may vary – e.g. your readiness to meditate may differ on weekdays and on the weekend. As you progress, your favorite time may change.

How often and how longshould one meditate? In principle, as often and long as possible! Some grand masters are reported to have meditated for several days non-stop, and pursued such an intense regimen for years. Beginners like us should just do their best. The important thing is tocommit oneself to regular meditation, and slowly increase the time devoted to this exercise.

If you are just starting, first institute a minimum of 10 minutes a day. I use an alarm clock (not a loud one) to make sure I do not sit for less than the time allotted. At first, let that meditation period be anytime in the day that you happen to be free. This gives you a chance to try different times, in accord with your routines. After say after a week or two of this, institute a regular time, e.g. in the morning before breakfast, or in the evening before going to bed.

Once you have mastered this first discipline, increase the time to 20 minutes a day, and stick to that for a few weeks. Alternatively, you might – rather than increase the time per sitting – try sitting for the same amount of time twice a day; see how that feels. Gradually thereafter, increase the total amount of time per day: first to half an hour, then to 40 minutes, then to one hour, then to 90 minutes, and so forth.

Don’t exaggerate, though, because the most important thing is not how much you can meditate in one sitting or one day. The most important thing is to meditate the amount of time you have decided you can handle,every day without fail. Once you settle comfortably in a certain amount of daily meditation, stick to it – don’t go back to a lesser amount.

The reason for this rule is that the effect of meditation is gradual and cumulative. It takes time to build up in you the magical changes it is capable of producing. Things happen bit by bit – if you give them time to happen. Do not be over-ambitious and try to sit for too long too soon, or you will experience rejection. Also, do not sit for too short a time, if you can manage more, because the shorter amount of time may be insufficient for noticeable results.

Note that on the weekends you might sit for longer amounts of time and/or more often, than you do on weekdays. But here again, if you do that, it is best to make it a habit.

Whereshould one sit and meditate? In principle, one could meditate anywhere. But in practice, it is wise to pick a spot that is reasonably quiet and where no one is likely to disturb you. Facing natural scenery is nice, if you are outdoors; but there should not be too much activity in front of you. If you are indoors, better face a window or a blank wall than an area cluttered with furniture or other objects.

In short, avoid having things in your range of vision that will distract you, directly or by association of ideas stimulating thinking activity. Similarly, do not place yourself where you can hear your neighbors’ music or conversation. However, background sounds need not deter you from meditating, if they are not too loud or persistent. The same applies to other sensory input.

Go to the toilet before you sit. The air you breathe when you meditate should be fresh; open a window for a while as necessary. Your body should be kept warm, but not so warm as to make you drowsy. Wear loose clothes, so as not to impede blood circulation or breathing. Loosen your belt, so your belly is free to move. Take off your glasses.

Whatsittingpostureis best for meditation? The ideal posture is the “lotus” position, i.e. sitting cross-legged, with the left foot on the right thigh and the right foot on the left thigh. This posture is best, because of the feeling of stability and oneness it gives one’s body during meditation. For most of us in the West, this is not an easy position to assume, however; and if done using force or excessively it can damage your knees. But note that, if you are willing to make the effort over enough time, there are yoga exercises that train you for it[1].

The next best posture is the “half lotus”: sitting on a cushion, you fold one leg by placing one foot over the opposite thigh, and fold the other legunderthe first. Practice the half lotus on both sides equally, and in time you might attain the full lotus. A third option is to sit cross-legged with both legs folded down – most people can do that briefly; but, in my opinion, this is not very good for meditation, because the back tends to curve and keeping it straight is a constant struggle.

Another common posture is to squat, without crossing one’s legs, on the upturned soles of one’s feet (the “Diamond” pose); this is a comfortable posture if you can do it. Not so recommended is to sit on the floor with both legs folded outward, because this twists the knees unnaturally.

If you find these Eastern postures too painful to sit in for long periods of time or if you just cannot sit in any of them[2], do not foolishly let that deter you from meditation – just sit on a chair! Meditation is something mostly non-physical, although physical pain can be an object of meditation and transcending pain through meditation can be very satisfying indeed. You do not have to look like a Buddha when you meditate. Just do the practical thing, and choose the posture appropriate to your body.

If you sit on a chair, do not rest your back or arms on any support; sit on the edge of the chair or use a stool. Do not sit on a couch; nor can you meditate slouching or lying down. The seat should be neither too high nor too low, so your legs form a right angle and the soles of your feet are flat on the ground, with your knees apart about a shoulder-width. If the seat you are using is very low, cross your lower legs a bit, resting the outer edges of your feet on the ground[3].

The important thing, however one sits, is to keep one’s back and neck straight. Sitting partly on a cushion lifts up the lower back and helps straighten the spine. Stretch your spine, as if it is tied down at the coccyx and you are pulling it upward from somewhere above your head. Your torso should be upright. But do not push your chest out and pull your belly in; instead, draw the shoulders back and relax them downward (both equally) , and let the belly relax outward.

The head should feel like it is floating over the neck (allowing maximum energy flow through thechakras). Bend it slightly forward, pulling the chin inward; but do not rigidly lock into this position. Do not however let your head bow down (this is indicative of heavy thoughts); and do not let it fall back, either (this movement away from objects in sight is indicative of fear or arrogance).

Relax your face: mouth, forehead and eyes. Look straight ahead, eyes turned a bit down. Do not stare at any particular object, but rather rest your eyes without insistence on the region in front of them. If you find yourself too caught up in visual stimuli, then close your eyes for a while and turn your attention inward. If you find that with closed eyes you think too much, reopen them.

Rest your hands on your knees or thighs, but do not lean on them. Alternatively, join your hands below your navel (on or above your lap), resting one hand on the other, with the palms upturned and the thumbs lightly touching[4]. Breathe freely and calmly. Repeatedly check and correct your posture, throughout the sitting. But preferably stick to your posture and avoid any need of corrective movements.

Once you have well positioned yourself, mentally choose some meditation technique (such as awareness of your breath) that seems appropriate to your current state of mind. Lock your attention firmly onto the chosen method, and do not let go till the end of the time you have allotted. Do not loosen your grip; do not allow your mind to wander and distract you from this concentration.

If you are meditating for a long period, and halfway through you seem to have reached an impasse (e.g. acute restlessness or mental agitation), it may be beneficial to get up and walk about very slowly and mindfully for a short while. Always end your meditation sessions with a few minutes of such ‘walking meditation’, timing your steps to match your breathing (at a rate of one or two breaths per step).

At the end of your meditation, do not immediately subject your senses to strong inputs, or spring directly into cogitation or action. Avoid jarring experiences or activities; otherwise, your head may experience some fragility in the hours ahead. Keep the meditative mood going for as long as you can.

[1]Such as the Butterfly (sit with your foot soles touching each other and gently push your knees up and down or swing them left and right) and the Crow Walk (sit with your bum touching your heels, put your hands on your knees, and then walk). Such exercises of course need time to bring results.

[2]E.g. if your knees are damaged or fragile.

[3]But this blocks circulation in the feet somewhat.

[4]This is the “cosmicmudra“, favored by Zen meditators. There are many more possibilities, which you may discover from other sources. The important thing is to facilitate internal energy flows and avoid blocking it, however one positions the hands.

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